The War of the Terrorisms: What is the Axis of Evil?

destroyed home in Kabul, original source AFP (Agence France-Presse) found on

Americans were shocked by the retaliation against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  But they should not have been.  I have to admit that I was surprised by the sheer theatricality and scope of the retaliation, but I was not surprised that some deadly act of retaliation occured.  In recent years there have been terrorists retaliations all over the globe--in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Algeria, Kashmir, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Japan, Chechnya, Columbia, Peru, etc., etc., etc.  Nor has the West been exempt.  There have been terrorist retaliations in Northern Ireland and England and Basque country in Spain, not to mention the retaliation at the Munich Olympics or the Red Guards of Italy, Germany, and Japan not that long ago.  There have been numerous terrorist retaliations on American power overseas, from the navy ship the U.S.S. Cole to the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the marines stationed in Lebanon by the Reagan administration.  It was only a matter of time before terrorists chose to retaliate on U.S. soil.

Perhaps it strikes you as odd that I would call terrorist actions "retaliation."  When you call something retaliation, it sounds like it is only a justifed response to some previous wrong.  Actually, I do not support any act of terrorism anywhere for any reason, but I am making an important rhetorical point.  When George Bush calls U.S. military action in Afghanistan or the Sudan or Iraq or anywhere else "retaliation," he is ignoring the long chain of history behind these conflicts.  To portray an American attack on Islamic people as a simple retaliation against a single isolated attack on the U.S. is to ignore the legitimate grievances of Islamic states and peoples against the U.S.  The U.S. has been intervening in the Islamic world for more than 60 years before the current attacks on Afghanistan, and its European allies have centuries of acting as aggressive imperialists in the Islamic world.  To just highlight just a few of the more obvious and public interventions, the U.S. fought a war against Iraq, sent Marines to Lebanon (twice), reinstalled the Shah of Iran after he was overthrown by a popular revolution, and supported corrupt plutocratic and/or military governments from Algeria to Indonesia.  The U.S. has also provided not only diplomatic support but direct military assistance for illegal Israeli occupation of Arab territories and Israeli state terror against Palestinian civilians.

The next time you watch American media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, notice how the American media always describe Israeli military action against Palestinian civilians as a "retaliation" against some recent Palestinian attack.  However, rarely do the American media label Palestinian actions "retaliation."  Instead, Palestinian attacks are generally portrayed as part of orchestrated Palestinian aggression against Israelis.  Embedded in these descriptions is a basic story, a metanarrative, that Palestinians are attacking Israelis, but Israelis are only defending themselves against Palestinian attacks.  In other words, Palestinians are the bad guys committing aggression against the Israelis, but Israelis are the good guys, simply defending themselves against the Palestinians.

Red Cross food warehouse, original source AFP (Agence France-Presse) found on

Of course, the U.S. media's portrayal of U.S. military action against Islamic states and peoples even more deeply and profoundly differentiates between U.S. "self-defense" vs. "Islamic terrorism."  When a terrorist bombs the Pentagon or the World Trade Center, that is an act of unprovoked aggression without any reason or history.  But when the U.S. bombs Afghan cities or towns where most of the population had nothing to do with the attacks on Washington and New York, that is always portrayed as "self-defense" and "retaliation."

A few months ago I attended a lecture on American Studies in Korea, and not surprisingly, the issue of terrorism came up.  The speaker repeatedly referred to "September 11th," and everyone in the room, Korean as well as American, knew what she meant.  In the q and a afterwards I suggested it was a mistake to refer to the war as "September 11th" because that implied that the war began on that day, that the retaliation against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center had no history.  I pointed out that what the Bush administration likes to call the "war on terrorism" actually began long ago.  In fact, it is not enough to trace this war back to the Gulf War of the early 90s, or the "oil shocks" of the 70s and 80s, or the Israeli occupation of Arab territories since 1967, or the foundation of the state of Israel in the late 1940s, or even the British and other western colonization of Arab, Turk, and other Muslim lands in past few centuries.  This war goes back at least a millenium to the European Crusades to colonize the "holy land."

The speaker thoughtfully asked me what would I call it.  I had no good answer for her at the time.  But after several more weeks of hearing the Bush administration drone on about a "war on terrorism," I have come up with a label.  Until somebody comes up with a better monicker, I will call it the "War of the Terrorisms."  Right now the focus of the war is between non-state terrorism like Al Qaeda and states that engage in or support anti-American terrorism, like the Taliban which once controlled the state of Afghanistan.  On the other side is the state terrorism of the United States and its allies, including Israel.  But the focus could easily broaden if the Bush administration, buoyed by its success in Afghanistan, were to seek to overthrow other governments in the Muslim world unfriendly toward the U.S.

The United States engaged in terrorism?  Aren't terrorists dark, furitive men who huddle together in secret cells and skulk around in the shadows plotting to murder civilians and overthrow governments?  Well, that sounds a bit like the CIA, doesn't it?  Lets look closely at King George's own description of terrorism in his speech to a joint session of Congress a week after the bombings of September 11 and in his 2002 State of the Union address and see if U.S. actions qualify as state terrorism as Bush himself defines it.

destroyed home in Kabul, original source AFP (Agence France-Presse) found on

First of all, according to Bush, terrorism is not just the action of small groups of unaffiliated individuals.  Governments support terrorism and can act as terrorists themselves.  What appears as rogue action can be the work of states.  Bush defines his enemy as "a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them." He refers to "regimes that sponsor terror."  In Afghanistan, the U.S. attacked not only the terrorist camps of Al Qeda, but also the
Taliban, which was the government of the entire country.  Clearly the Bush administration believes states can not only sponsor terrorism but act as terrorists themselves.  So we need to look more closely at exactly what terrorism is in order to understand "state terrorism."

According to Bush, terrorists "make no distinction among military and civilians."  In other words, terrorists attack civilians.  For sixty years the United States has consistently carried out a policy of attacking civilians--from the dropping of the atom bomb on civilians in Hiroshima, to the fire bombing of German and Japanese cities in World War II, to the recently publicized masscres of civilians in the Korean War, to the targeting of civilians in the Vietnam War, particularly the Phoenix program to assassinate village chiefs, to the bombing of Iraqi civilians in the Persian Gulf War and its aftermath, to the bombing of a civilian factory in the Sudan in 1998, to the bombing of countless cities, towns, and villages in Afghanistan in recent months.  (for a graphic presentation of the American history of bombing civilians, see my photo-essay, The World Trade Center and Pentagon Bombings)

Now the Bush administration and the American military do "make a distinction" between military and civilians," and cry crocodile tears over so-called "collateral damage" of bombing what they claim are military targets.  "Collateral damage" is one of those euphemisms that qualify for George Orwell's dictionary of totalitarian Newspeak.  Bush and his military commanders know that every time they bomb cities, towns, and villages, civilians will die.  "Collateral damage" is really collateral murder.  Sometimes civilians are the intended target, sometimes civilians are just in the way, but in every war the U.S. has fought in the past 60 years thousands of civilians have been killed by American military action.  Simply calling that "collateral damage" is a distinction without a difference.

Hiroshima, the first atomic attack on civilians
Hiroshima was chosen as the site of the first atomic bombing because it had never been bombed during the entire war.  That was because it had no military targets, no bases or significant war industry.  The American military wanted a pristine target so it could clearly see the impact of the first atomic bomb.  World War II marks the beginning of a consistent American policy of targeting civilians in times of war.

But U.S. targeting of civilians goes beyond simple "collateral damage."  During the Cold War the U.S. frankly talked of a "balance of terror."  In the Cold War the U.S. made no distinction between military and civilians.  It openly targeted the entire population of the Soviet Union.  U.S. policy was openly to kill most of the men, women, and children in the Soviet Union if the Cold War became hot.  This was not just an abstraction.  Several times during the Cold War the U.S. threatened to use nuclear weapons--from various Berlin crises, to the Cuban missile crisis, and allegedly during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union the U.S. now has such massive conventional superiority over any potential adversary that nuclear blackmail is no longer considered necessary.  So now U.S. attacks on civilians can be more plausibly passed off as "collateral damage."

Bush also lambasts the terrorists because, "They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan."  However, in Washington, the list of Islamic governments the U.S. wants to overthrow grows longer and longer:  Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc., and perhaps soon the Palestine authority which it does not even recognize as a government.   But it is true Washington does not discriminate against Islamic states.  It is also seeking to overthrow or at least undermine such other governments as North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and even China.

In justifying the attacks on the Taliban regime, Bush pointed out "Afghanistan's people have been brutalized -- many are starving and many have fled."  Of course after the American bombing, now many more have been brutalized, are starving and huddling in refugee camps.  Many now estimate that more Afghan civilians have been killed by the U.S. bombing than the number of civilians killed in the World Trade Center bombing.

Not all refugees from Afghanistan fled American bombing, but these are just a few of the many who did
sources, BBC News and Doctors without Borders

Bush is shocked that terrorists "are recruited from their own nations and neighborhoods and brought to camps...where they are trained in the tactics of terror.  They are sent back to their homes or sent to hide in countries around the world."  Perhaps Bush has never heard of the School of the Americas in Washington, D.C., where Latin American military and security forces are recruited and trained in terror tactics, then sent back to their home countries to torture and kill opponents of U.S. backed regimes.  Perhaps Bush never knew that from Vietnam to El Salvador to the Middle East the U.S. has sent "advisers" to pro-American military governments to train local forces in black ops, from death squad assassinations to torture.  Perhaps he forgets that one time the U.S. even trained and armed what eventually became the Taliban when they were fighting against a pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan.

Bush is offended that Al Qaeda's "goal is remaking the world -- and imposing its...beliefs on people everywhere."  Everyone knows that is the job of the United States and western transnational corporations.  After all, what is globalization except remaking the world so everyone believes in the West's "universal values?"


In his 2002 State of the Union speech Bush expanded the War of the Terrorisms to include nations that produce weapons of mass destruction and missiles to deliver them.  The "axis of evil" is a group of states who are  "arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction," who want "the materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction...By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."  Now, if terrorism is defined by having the expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction, then the United States is the undisputed World Champion of terrorism.  North Korea, Iran, and Iraq today probably have zero nuclear weapons, although perhaps North Korea has a few.  The United States has thousands, and its allies Britain and France each have hundreds.

U.S. nuclear missile submarine carrying just a few dozen of the thousands on U.S. nuclear weapons.  source: Federation of Atomic Scientists
The stocks of North Korean, Iranian, and Iraqi chemical and biological weapons are unknown, but the leaders in research and development of bioterrorism have been the United States and Russia.  No one disputes that most of the chemical and biological weapons in the world are held by the United States and Russia combined.  Most experts now believe the anthrax that appeared in the mail last fall was manufactured in an American lab.

North Korea, Iran, and Iraq have together perhaps a few hundred missiles, most of them unable to reach U.S. territory.  North Korea is alleged to have a new missile with the capability to hit Alaska and perhaps the U.S. West Coast, but many intelligence analysts doubt that assertion.  What is clear is that the U.S. has thousands of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and bombers that can strike anywhere in the world.  The United States spends more on its military than all of the other nations of the world combined, and U.S. arms exports around the world are roughly equal to those of all of the other nations of the world combined.  George Bush wants to increase U.S. military spending by $48 billion, an increase that is as large as the entire budget of the number two military spender Japan.  Most of that money goes not to homeland defense but to project American power around the world, so that the U.S. can strike any nation at any time with any level of mass destruction it chooses.

Now the Bush administration would argue that the "axis of evil" is "arming to threaten the peace of the world," while U.S. intentions are peaceful.  "These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield."  But what country has been involved in more all-out wars, counter-insurgencies, low-intensity conflicts, paramilitary actions, etc. for the past sixty years than the United States?  When Bush completes the above sentence with "we must pursue them wherever they are," doesn't that sound like the U.S. also considers "the entire world as a battlefield?"

Do you ever wonder why in all its propaganda the U.S. rarely refers to the attack on the Pentagon that happened simultaneously with the attack on the World Trade Center?  Could it be by drawing attention to the Pentagon the U.S. would draw attention to its own conception of "the entire world as a battlefield?"

night photo of the bombed Pentagon with the Capitol building in the background.  source, Journal E
By any objective measure, the U.S. is the World Champion of mass destruction.  Bush's argument that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are the "axis of evil" cannot be based on the simple fact that they have or seek weapons of mass destruction.  At its core, Bush's view is an old American way of thinking, that the U.S. is uniquely good and its enemies are uniquely bad.

Bush seems puzzled why the U.S. is a target of terrorism.  He asks "why do they hate us?" and asserts  "They hate...democratically elected government...They hate our freedoms."  Republican Senator John McCain said Al Qaeda and its allies "hate us because we are good."  Perhaps that is true.  Or perhaps they hate the U.S. because the U.S. and the West have been the principal enemies of self-determination in the Muslim world for decades and even centuries.  Perhaps they hate the U.S. for all of the havoc the U.S. has wrought in the Islamic world, from support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, to the war on Iraq, to returning the Shah to power to in Iran, to the support of corrupt plutocratic rule in the Gulf States, to the support of brutal military regimes from Indonesia to Pakistan, to the undermining of Islamic values through "globalization," etc., etc., etc.

The Bush administration has characterized the Taliban as evil, comparing them to the Fascists in Europe in the 1930s and 40s.  But it is the Bush who is using the old Fascist technique of the "big lie."  The U.S. has many enemies around the world, not because it is the embodiment of everything that is good and just and free and democratic.  The U.S. has many enemies around the globe because for more than half a century its has conducted terrorism against civilians and "viewed the entire world as its battlefield."  The U.S. has many enemies around the world because of the evil it has done, not because of the good it has done.



To the Table of Contents of the Student Pages of the Electronic Textbook